BISMARCK, N.D. — They sat in an intimate circle, 12 Native American teenage boys and the nation’s highest law-enforcement official, getting to know each other for about 45 minutes Thursday and talking casually about music, life, girls — and sex.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had a message about sexual relations for the young men, most of whom had come from the Standing Rock Indian reservation an hour away. He urged them to dream big, work hard and, as they make their way growing up in Indian country — where sexual violence, rape and abuse of women is rampant — treat women like they would want their mothers and sisters to be treated.
“You can’t be a man if you mistreat women,” said Holder, leaning forward in his chair and slowly looking at each of the boys, some in jeans, others in dress pants, shirts and ties. “If you mistreat women, you’re not a man. You’re a punk.”
The discussion between Holder and the young men from was an effort by the Justice Department to create a dialogue between law enforcement and young Native American men about their day-to-day experiences on the reservation and their interactions with the criminal justice system.
Holder’s visit was geared, in particular, to pressing the young men to help address the high rate of violence against women in Indian country. An estimated one in three Native American women are sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetimes, and three out of five experience domestic violence.
Last year, to make it easier for assailants to be brought to justice, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which included a historic provision to allow the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit certain violent crimes against Native women.
On Thursday, Holder stressed that while Washington was determined to help empower Native American women and reform the law, it was up to the American Indian men to effect change.
“At the end of the day, the solution lies with people like you,” Holder said. “There are young guys looking at you. They’re going to look at the way you treat women. It’s a problem we as men have to own.”
Holder’s visit to a tribal conference here at the United Tribes Technical College is the first time a sitting attorney general has visited the state since Robert F. Kennedy addressed the National Congress of American Indians in September 1963. The White House announced Thursday that Obama, in a rare visit by a sitting U.S. president to Indian country, will also travel to North Dakota, where he will meet June 13 with young people at Standing Rock, a reservation the size of Connecticut that is home to the storied Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and that straddles North and South Dakota.
Here in North Dakota, about 5.4 percent of the state’s population — 36,400 people — are Native Americans, a number that increases to 43,167 when including those who consider themselves part Native American. More than 40 percent of the American Indians in North Dakota are youth.
In his speech to the tribal conference here, Holder acknowledged that, for decades, “hostility, mistrust, and outright discrimination characterized the relationships between federal officials and tribal leaders.” But he also cited progress, and hope that Washington and tribal leaders could work to improve the welfare of Native American communities.
Three tribes in Arizona, Oregon and Washington state are beginning to implement the provision in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act that permits them to prosecute certain crimes of domestic violence committed by non-Indians against Indian women. But most of the North Dakota reservations do not have sophisticated enough tribal court systems yet to implement the law.
Like the 566 tribes in 35 states across the country, the reservations in the Dakotas struggle with poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug addiction. North Dakota, like much of the Great Plains, has suffered from disproportionately high rates of suicide in the recent past. Over the last decade, some tribal communities in North Dakota have had rates of suicide reaching 10 times the national average, according to the Center for Native American Youth.
North Dakota U.S. Attorney Timothy Q. Purdon said he will never forget the moment when he was a young lawyer clerking for a judge in 1995, and he stepped for the first time onto the Standing Rock Reservation in Cannon Ball, N.D.
“It was isolated and poverty-stricken, and there was a sense of hopelessness among some of the people who lived there,” Purdon said in an interview. “It was very different from my background and how I had lived, and I said to myself at the time: How is it possible in the 20th century that there are American citizens living in isolation and poverty like this? It was unfathomable to me.”
Purdon said safety on reservations is his top priority and that his office is prosecuting more violent crimes cases in Indian country than his office did in the past. He has increased the number of prosecutors assigned to reservation cases and requires them to visit the reservations several times a year to listen to tribal concerns, in addition to the times they go for their cases.
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) has introduced a bill that would create a Commission on Native Children to conduct an intensive study into issues facing Native children, including high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse and few economic opportunities. The Justice Department last year launched a similar commission.
Holder said the Justice Department is also examining the disparities in criminal sentencing for Native Americans. American Indians are often sentenced more harshly in federal courts than white, African American and Hispanic federal offenders convicted of similar crimes, according to a study last year, and Holder said the Justice Department is examining the disparities.
“We’ve made some progress,” Purdon said. “But we can’t expect Native American people to overcome decades and decades of isolation and poverty until first and foremost they feel safe in their communities. These problems are centuries in the making, and it’s going to take years and years and years to solve them.”
After meeting with the young Native American men, Holder said in an interview that he was struck by how similar they were to the young men he has met across the country, adding that there is “a universality to the problems they face, the hope they have, their basic desire to make things better.”
“It’s always hard to get these kids to talk. But you can also see that as much as they’re kinda looking down, every now and again they’re up and they’re looking at you and they’re listening,” he said. “The hope is that they’re hearing and that they then act upon some of the interaction we had.”